The BMAA 1978

It is 1978, and in the USA ultralight aviation is sweeping all before it, as one innovative design after another leaves the drawing board and takes to the air, proving that tube and Dacron technology has finally come of age. Construction of Klaus Hill's V-tailed 'Hummer', which made its first flight in November 1977, began in earnest and gave Klaus a place amongst the cream of American pioneers, particularly when he followed it with the 'Humbug', on which the 'Vector' and many other designs were modelled. Sadly, like many other aviation pioneers, he gained his experience in the hardest possible way, being killed during a test flight on 10 October 1979.

Then there was the composite-construction Striplin 'Flac' which took its name from 'Foot Launched Air Cycle', a reflection of the early American legislation requiring ultralights to be foot-launched if they were to be exempt from lightplane rules. Right from the start, Ken Striplin intended his 'Flac' to incorporate an undercarriage, but he pretended it was an auxiliary one, to get round the legislation.

Different control systems and configurations abounded. Ultralite Soaring's 'Wizard' suspended its pilot in a harness between the tubes of the cage, but also had an elevator. Others, like the Ultralight Flight's 'Mirage', used a cruciform tail with elevators and rudder, with spoilers on top of the wing. Still others used ruddervators on an inverted V-tail, where the ailerons improve their efficiency, as is the case with the Ultraflight Sales 'Lazair' from Canada. The choice was growing almost by the hour.

This was the year, too, when John Chotia's efforts finally came good, his first two prototypes of the two-axis 'Weedhopper' making their maiden flights in February 1978. Carrying the type number 'JC-24', as they were his 24th design, they led to a pre-production machine the following year and large-scale production in 1980.

Tragically, only one year later, on 27 October 1981, Chotia followed in Hill's footsteps and was killed while test flying one of his own machines. We remember him as a big good-natured man with strict morals (even when in France he wouldn't taste the wine!), but farsighted enough to see that ultralight aviation had to turn to research into small engines. Even though his own single-cylinder Chotia 460 was notoriously unreliable, he was nevertheless the first person to create an engine specifically for ultralight use. While his engineering was questionable, his grasp of history certainly wasn't: he realised that he was taking part in an aviation rebirth, and shortly before he died confessed to having been largely inspired by Santos-Dumont's 'Demoiselle'.

By comparison, Europe was pretty quiet, and undoubtedly the major event of the year was the first successful crossing of the English Channel by microlight, when on 9 May Dave Cook (later to found CFM) took a 'VJ-23E' across to France. Like Chotia, he too had a sense of history, landing near the spot from where Bleriot had started his first ever crossing, 69 years earlier. He'd taken 1 h 15 min to fly from Deal in Kent to Les Baraques in northern France, much longer than Bleriot's 37 minutes but without the benefit of the extra 15 hp provided by the Frenchman's Anzani.

Image: Dave Cook, later to found CFM, and manufacture Shadow microlights. David was awarded the Bronze Medal of Achievement by the Royal Aero Club for his Channel crossing.

Len Gabriels soldiered on, by now using a 'Safari' wing, and that summer Steve Hunt made his first successful powered flights in a 'Super Scorpion' with a Soarmaster-style power pack fitted.

We say Soarmaster-style because these American power packs were both imported and imitated in Europe, having become quite popular among US hang glider pilots. But only in Europe were they to develop into an ultralight proper: America in 1978 was fixedwing oriented and already ultralighting and hang gliding had gone their separate ways.

At France's Brienne-le-Chateau meeting that year there were exhibits from Mobiplane, Bernard Danis and his powered hang-gliders, and Roland Magallon. Steadily, powered hang-gliders were becoming better understood and more widely used. Now you could buy power kits, using two 9 hp Stihl engines supplied by two students at Orignac in the Pyrenees.

Meanwhile at Coulommiers in Seine et Marne, Claude Chudzik had built a single-seater which was entirely his own work. One of the first, if not the first, applications of a motorcycle engine to an ultralight, it used a front-mounted Yamaha 347 cc engine, delivering 36 hp at 7000 rpm to a tractor propeller. A boom extended backwards to a conventional tail, with rudder operated by a rudder bar and elevators by a stick. The wing was a rigidly attached Rogallo which could be flexed in flight to provide roll control - an original, true three-axis design.

We must also record the contribution of Helmut Wilden in West Germany, whose single-seater flew for the first time that year and caused quite a stir. The three-axis aircraft used a 20 hp Limbach engine, which could be swapped for a Wankel KM 24 motor of 27 hp to allow the aircraft to be used as a two-seat side by side machine! But only one was built: to borrow a phrase from Rugby, this try was not to be converted.